Bracket Prep: West RegionPosted by AMurawa on March 18th, 2013
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (9 AM), Midwest (11 AM), South (1 PM), West (3 PM). Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCwestregion).
You can also check out our RTC Podblast with Andrew breaking down the West Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite: #2 Ohio State (26-7, 16-5 Big Ten). Not to take anything away from Gonzaga, a team and a program that should be very pleased with itself for the excellent season it has had, but the Buckeyes get the nod by an eyelash. While the Zags have been coasting through WCC play for the past couple months, Thad Matta’s club has dealt with the gauntlet of the Big Ten and emerged with an eight-game winning streak, boasting wins over teams like Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State (twice). Aaron Craft, a veteran guard with plenty of great basketball in his past, is probably playing the best ball of his distinguished career. And guys like LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith are tossing in just enough offense to aid big-time scorer Deshaun Thomas. Throw in the nation’s sixth-best team in defensive efficiency and let’s make the battle-tested Buckeyes a slight favorite to repeat as a Final Four team.
Should They Falter: #1 Gonzaga (31-2, 18-0 WCC). It would be easy to play the contrarian here and offer up plenty of backlash to the Bulldogs’ first-ever #1 seed and name New Mexico – a pretty darn good team in their own right – as the next best team in this region. But make no mistake, Gonzaga can ball. With Kelly Olynyk, a first-team All-American favorite, the Zags have the third-most efficient offense in the nation and Mark Few’s best offensive team in his time in Spokane. And while there are some concerns about the Zags’ ability to match up defensively with big and athletic guards, this is a team that is also Few’s most efficient defensive team ever – by far. While there are plenty of potential stumbling blocks (regardless of who they face in the Round of 32, that looks like a serious rumble, for instance), the Zags definitely have the ability to reach an Elite Eight. Or better.
Grossly Overseeded: #1 Gonzaga. Still, for all those good things written above about the Bulldogs, this is a team that is just 8-2 against the NCAA Tournament field, with their best win at #5 Oklahoma State coming in the previous calendar year (they also beat #4 Kansas State, but that was in Seattle). For the past two-plus months, the Gonzaga resume has basically just been beating up on WCC teams. Compared even with #3 New Mexico, Gonzaga’s accomplishments taken at face value aren’t all that impressive.
Grossly Underseeded: #3 New Mexico (29-5, 16-3 Mountain West). I have a hard time getting too worked up about anybody’s plight in this region, but the Lobos certainly have many of the typical hallmarks of a higher-seeded team: an RPI of #2, strength of schedule second in the nation, 19 wins over RPI top-100 teams, four wins over RPI top-25 teams, no bad losses. Still, if Steve Alford’s team had been given the choice between, say, a three-seed in Salt Lake City or a two-seed somewhere further away, they probably would have opted for Salt Lake. Still, I bet they’d rather see one of those 15-seeds in the opener than Harvard.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Boise State (21-10, 9-8 Mountain West). The Broncos will have to win three games to get to the second weekend, but this is a team that, provided it can get past a tough La Salle team in Dayton, could match up pretty well with Kansas State in the Round of 64. While the Wildcats’ best attribute offensively is their ability to crash the offensive glass, Boise is the third-best defensive rebounding team in the nation, with Ryan Watkins and Kenny Buckner very capable of cleaning the glass for Leon Rice. If they get through there, Wisconsin will likely await on the weekend. This will be a much more difficult task for the Broncos, where they’ll need one of their big-time perimeter scorers – either Anthony Drmic or Derrick Marks – to have an elite scoring game against Bo Ryan’s bruising defense. It’s not likely that the Broncos can run that gauntlet, but compared to my other options seeded at #12 or lower, Boise’s the best long-shot bet.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #6 Arizona (25-7, 13-7 Pac-12). The Wildcats are one of the most talented teams in the country and have been a “what-if” type of team all year. What if something clicks for those freshman bigs? What if Mark Lyons has that point guard awakening? What if Nick Johnson plays with confidence? Well, some of those “what-ifs” are starting to turn up intriguing answers. In the Pac-12 Tournament, Nick Johnson’s confidence at both ends of the court was off the charts. Freshman forward Brandon Ashley flashed glimpses of his all-around game and classmate Kaleb Tarczewski was a force in the paint. But Lyons remains the enigma. There’s little chance he’s going to turn into John Stockton overnight, but if he is the best Mark Lyons he can be (read: tough defender and a penetrating scorer), there are enough parts around him to make the ‘Cats a tough out. Of course, they could also get bounced in their first game, so be wary.
Carmelo Anthony Award. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga (17.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 66.7% eFG) – Apologies to Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas (who is a half-step back), but Olynyk is the only guy in this region of first-team All-America quality. After taking a redshirt year last season to work on his body, Olynyk has blown up this season, showing a great inside-out big man’s game. He started slowly, but grew up as the season went on and showed an ability to come up with massive games, such as the 31-point performance he had in the first meeting against Saint Mary’s. While the Zags have plenty of other guys capable of making big impacts offensively, Olynyk is the one guy who can carry this team to a national title. And certainly, if the Zags live up to their seeding, it will be on the back of great performances out of their junior.
Stephen Curry Award. Ian Clark, Belmont (18.1 PPG, 3.1 3FG, 68.8% TS) – Just above there’s a mention of how Arizona could get knocked off in its opener. If that happens, it will likely be because Clark – one of the nation’s best shooters – has a big hand in it. That true shooting percentage mentioned in Clark’s stats is a metric which includes three-point shooting and free throws into field goal percentage, and is the second-best in the nation. Twelve times this season Clark has gone for 20 points or better, and 19 times he’s hit at least three triples in a game. On a team with balanced scoring (five guys average nine points per game or more), Clark is the team’s most efficient scorer. And he should have a chip on his shoulder, because in his two previous Tournament games, the senior’s shot just a 35% eFG and averaged just eight points per outing.
Home Cooking: #2 Ohio State, 75 miles to Dayton – It’s but a brief one-hour drive (if you drive like me) from the Buckeyes’ Columbus campus to the Dayton pod, and you can bet Iona and OSU’s Round of 32 opponents will know it. Kansas State fans also have a comfortable 120-mile trip to Kansas City, while out west, fans of teams like New Mexico, Gonzaga and Arizona will have 600-700 mile journeys to reach the Salt Lake City pod.
Can’t-Miss Second Round Game: Arizona vs. Belmont, 3/21 at 7:20 PM ET on TNT. Belmont has been in the Tournament the last two seasons and has been a popular first-round upset pick, but instead has lost by 14 points to Wisconsin and 15 to Georgetown. Arizona, meanwhile, was at one point the butt of jokes regarding its many early exits from the Dance, including a stunning upset in 1993 to Steve Nash and Santa Clara in, get this, Salt Lake City. Against that backdrop you have this year’s underachieving version of the Wildcats with several future pros as a favorite over a Belmont team that plays one of the more entertaining brands of basketball in the nation. Make this one a priority.
Don’t Miss This One Either: Wisconsin vs. Ole Miss, 3/22 at 12:40 PM on truTV. – I’m going to go out on a (pretty sturdy and not very high) limb and say that this will probably be your last chance to watch Marshall Henderson this season. If you’re a fan of his antics and his swing-for-the-fences style of play, you’ll want to tune in to see him on the biggest stage. If you’re not a fan and root for him to fail, you’ll want to watch Bo Ryan and his Wisconsin defense run him off the three-point line and knock him around while you wait for the epic meltdown that he’s seemingly been on the verge of all year long.
Lock of the Year: Ohio State = Elite Eight. In a year where nothing seems to be a lock, give me the Buckeyes to live up to their seed line and win three games in this Tournament. If that’s not enough of a stretch for you, I’ll leave that as my lead-pipe lock and give you a heavy lean that Thad Matta and company will also advance to Atlanta.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – purists: New Mexico vs. Arizona, Round of 32. I just spent the last weekend in Las Vegas hopping back and forth between the Mountain West and the Pac-12 Tournaments. And, by far, the biggest and loudest fan bases were these two teams. Throw in the fact that these two programs have played 125 times between 1917 and 1999 (they were conference-mates in the both the Border Conference and the Western Athletic Conference for some time) until the series was ended by Lute Olson after three losses in four years at the end of the last century. So it is up to the NCAA Tournament to rekindle a great old rivalry and what a match-up this would be. Mark Lyons vs. Kendall Williams, Tony Snell vs. Solomon Hill, UNM’s under-athletic bigs against UofA’s elite frontcourt recruits. Please oh please oh please, basketball gods, let this happen.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – media: Ohio State vs. Arizona, Regional Semifinals. Aside from what would have the potential to be a classic battle between two big-time basketball programs, this game would also feature a coaching clash between Thad Matta and one of his former assistants, Sean Miller. The current Wildcats head coach was on Matta’s staff at Xavier from 2001-04 and got his start as a head coach when Matta moved on to Columbus. Oh, and Aaron Craft on Mark Lyons? Yeah, that might be interesting.
We Got Screwed – #3 New Mexico. The Lobos are the only team with much of a complaint here, which you can see above in the Grossly Underseeded section. The double champion of the second-best conference in the nation (according to the RPI), a team that will go throughout the year without losing consecutive games, and the best they get is a three-seed? Still, not a whole lot to get worked up about as Steve Alford and company can just use that as another perceived slight to focus their energy.
Strongest Pod - Gonzaga/Southern, Pittsburgh/Wichita State. While the Zags shouldn’t have much to fear in their first round game, that #8/#9 game is a monster. Assuming either the Panthers or the Shockers have any energy left after their Round of 64 brawl, they could present Gonzaga with a serious dogfight over the weekend.
Wildcard - Iowa State. I’ve made it this far and I haven’t even mentioned the Notre Dame/Iowa State matchup featuring the 12th and eighth most efficient offenses in the nation, respectively. Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State team is one of the more enjoyable teams in the nation to watch. With six different guys averaging between nine and 16 points per game, the Cyclones are a balanced and efficient offensive team that can put the ball in the bucket either from way downtown or via violent dunks. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish feature not only an electric backcourt duo of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, but a tough physical force up front in Jack Cooley. This should be an entertaining game, although neither team would appear to have enough to challenge Ohio State in the second round.
So-Called Experts – The consensus seems to be that, with Gonzaga as the top seed, this is the weakest and most wide-open bracket. As a result, projections are all over the place. Guys like Doug Gottlieb and Seth Davis have New Mexico advancing out of here, while Greg Anthony went with the top-seeded Zags. More importantly, perhaps, Nate Silver says Gonzaga is the favorite, with a 33% chance of advancing to the Final Four; Ohio State checks in at 25%, while New Mexico is just a 9% chance to get to Atlanta.